Maoists’ Last Stand
India’s greatest internal security threat from Maoist fighters is receding, but state complacency continues to cost lives
Despite the strike in Chhattisgarh, left-wing extremists are in retreat as the security establishment gets tough
Two ambushes a little over a month apart illustrate the perils of underestimating the Maoists. On April 24, a CRPF road-opening party comprising 76 troopers at Burkapal in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district was surrounded and overrun by two Maoist ‘companies’ numbering over 300 guerrillas. Twenty-five CRPF troopers lay dead as Maoists directed indiscriminate fire at them. It was their deadliest strike since the April 2010 ambush and massacre of 75 CRPF troopers in Chintalnar, Dantewada district, and followed the March 11 gunning down of 12 CRPF troopers in Bhejji, 20 km from district capital Sukma.
Both ambushes occurred in the Maoist stronghold of Sukma in what the extremists call their annual Tactical Counter Offensive Campaign (TCOC)— the period between March and June when they are in peak strength and constantly probe for any slackening of guard. In Burkapal, for instance, they struck just when the troopers broke for lunch. In Bhejji, they carefully watched the CRPF road-opening party follow a predictable routine before laying a deadly ambush. These 37 deaths in just six weeks were a setback for the government celebrating a stunning decline in Maoist-related violence in 2016.
On March 17 this year, Union home minister Rajnath Singh told the Lok Sabha that the number of Leftwing Extremism (LWE)-affected districts had contracted from 106 to 68. The 35 ‘most affected’ districts among them were in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Maharashtra.
In the past four months, 158 persons—Maoists, civilians and security personnel—have been killed in six states. Horrific as they may be, these deaths are unlikely to significantly alter a tide that is
slowly turning against LWE. A grave threat, which then prime minister Manmohan Singh warned, in April 2006, was the “single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country”, now has its back to the wall. Maoists are capable of pulling off surprises, but they are slowly bleeding territory and foot soldiers in a battle of attrition with the Indian state. In Chhattisgarh, where they have the largest presence, Maoist-controlled territories have shrunk from 20,000 sq km a decade ago to a little over 5,000 sq km, mostly in the state’s southern districts.
From a high of 1,180 deaths in Naxal-related violence in 2010, high enough for it to be termed a high-intensity conflict and more than twice the number of Indian soldiers lost in the Kargil War of 1999, deaths in Naxal violence plunged to an all-time low of just 161 last year. This is the sharpest such decline in 15 years of LWE (see graphic: Confined Insurgency), but still years away from what security analysts say is a prerequisite to declaring mission accomplished—an entire year free of any LWE-related incident.
The impenetrable hilly forests of Abujmarh, spread over nearly 4,000 sq km across Chhattisgarh’s southernmost districts of Bijapur, Narayanpur and Dantewada, are core Maoist area. It has India’s largest concentration of leftwing extremists who run their parallel government, the ‘Janatana Sarkar’, deep inside the forests. But it is Sukma, jutting into Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, and which a senior government official calls ‘de facto capital of the Maoist state’, that is most critical. Located at this tri-junction, Sukma offers a vital safe passage for Maoists and material to move into other states. The district borders two other LWEaffected districts—Odisha’s Malkangiri and Telangana’s Bhadradri-Kothagudem. This junction of contiguous areas of Chhattisgarh and Odisha, bordering Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, is the Maoists’ jugular. It serves as a safe haven, partly because nearly all the ageing Maoist leaders are from the Telugu-speaking states. They enjoy a pervasive network of sympathisers on whom the militants rely for logistics and medical help.
It is here in Sukma, their backyard, that the Maoists are waging a savage battle against their greatest enemy: roads. The March 11 attack was against troopers guarding the Benji-Injiram road and the April 24 attack was on troops guarding construction teams on the 56-km Dornapal-Jagargunda road. For several years, Maoists have dug up roads, planted landmines and blown up culverts on this 400-km network of roads being laid by the state government in Chhattisgarh’s southern districts. “Roads bring in development, and speed up the deployment of security forces,” says a senior home ministry official. “They constrain the space and time advantage that the Maoists
in rugged territory.” The completion of just these two roads will cut up Maoist territory, challenging their primary shield: inaccessibility.
The conflict with the Maoists is at a critical juncture. This is where the Centre’s lethargy is baffling. There has been no radical change in approach or any move to address strategic deficiencies in the fight against Maoists. The CRPF, the main force battling Maoists, remained without a full-time director general for two months since February. A new DG, Rajiv Rai Bhatnagar, was appointed 48 hours after the Burkapal massacre. It suffers from deficits in policy, equipment, manpower and training. This translated into the CRPF sending unprepared and ill-equipped troopers into one of the last Maoist strongholds in the country.
The CRPF troopers who were ambushed had none of the equipment recommended as far back as in 2012 in a home ministry modernisation plan. Of the approximately Rs 83,000 crore allocation for the home ministry in the 2017 Union budget, Rs 17,868 crore went to its largest force, the 300,000-strong CRPF. The list of equipment approved but not procured—from Mine Protected Vehicles (MPVs) to drones, thermal imagers and ground penetrating radars— grows longer with each passing year (see graphic: Unprotected on the Ground).
The troops in Sukma had none of the accoutrements—dog squads or MPVs—that would help detect or break the ambush. The CRPF has been authorised to buy 352 MPVs (costing over Rs 1 crore apiece), but it has only 120 such vehicles. The force does not have any workshops in the Maoist-affected regions, so at least 40 per cent of the vehicles are not operational at any given time.
Of greater concern are manpower issues. In the past three years, nearly 7,000 CRPF personnel have quit, including 1,085 inspectors, sub-inspectors and assistant sub-inspector rank officers who lead the companies, sections and platoons in counter-Maoist operations. These shortages have hollowed out the leadership on the ground. In the April 24 ambush, a lone inspector was in charge of two companies whereas the recommended officer strength for such a force would have been at least five officers— one deputy commandant, two inspectors and two deputy inspectors. The Sukma encounters have sowed the seeds for further danger. In just one ambush, Maoists made away with 22 weapons, including AK-47 and INSAS rifles, and over 3,000 rounds of ammunition—sufficient to mount another such ambush.
A deadly armed peasant insurrection which started in Naxalbari in West Bengal 50 years ago on May 25, 1967, rode on the back of exploitation and lack of land reforms. By August 1971, the uprising had been violently supenjoy
IN RECENT YEARS, THE MAOISTS HAVE SUFFERED TREMENDOUS LOSSES, INCLUDING IN THE TOP LEADERSHIP, LEAVING THEIR MOVEMENT IN DIRE STRAITS
pressed by the police and Indian army.
In 2004, embers of the Maoist movement, which flickered on in two Indian states, lit up to start a forest fire. The People’s War Group (PWG) in Andhra Pradesh and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) of Bihar and Jharkhand merged to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist). It triggered a deadly war covering a continuous swathe of areas from South India to the Indo-Nepal border, affecting nine states and accounting for 27 per cent of the country’s area and 39 per cent of the population.
While the state slept, a hardcore cadre of violent extremists from Andhra Pradesh, led by the bespectacled and enigmatic supremo Muppalla Lakshmana Rao, alias ‘Ganapathy’, 67, spread their tentacles into regions of central India so inaccessible that they had been left unsurveyed from colonial times. The Maoists swiftly established their parallel government, running schools and courts, collecting taxes, deciding cropping patterns and expanding their tribal army, the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA), thought to number 2,000 fighting cadre in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region.
In the new war against Maoists, the military is being used only in a support role—six air force Mi-17V-5 transport helicopters based in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand are used for ferrying casualties and transporting troops and equipment. The choppers have their cockpits reinforced by plates of armoured steel to protect them from Maoist fire (one helicopter was downed by Maoists in January 2013).
The approach of the state has been the classic counter-insurgency strategy of ‘Clear-Hold-Build’. Clear an area of insurgents, hold on to it by putting up security posts and then gradually expand the area under the control of the state by building up physical infrastructure, such as banks, mobile phone towers and roads.
The inflection point came after the 2010 Chintalnar massacre. Then home minister P. Chidambaram began a twopronged plan to equip and empower the state police forces, push more paramilitary forces into the LWE-affected districts and build up fortified police stations in remote areas. The other prong was to empower the district officials to build infrastructure, like schools, roads, toilets and drinking water facilities, in areas freed of Maoists. A unified command was set up in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and West Bengal to closely coordinate the activities of the police, paramilitary and intelligence units. This strategy can to a large extent be credited for turning around the neglect of the early 2000s.
The state is now moving back in, albeit slowly. The NDA’s home ministry, under Rajnath Singh, has largely continued the UPA’s clear-hold-build plan. In the 35 districts categorised as ‘worst affected’, the Centre has opened 358 new bank branches, 752 ATMs and 1,789 post offices in the past two years.
In the first phase between January and December 2015, 932 mobile phone towers have been put up. Another
POLICE SAY MAOISTS WILL CEASE TO BE A THREAT IN FIVE YEARS. BUT THE PRESSURE OF DEVELOPMENT AND SECURITY NEEDS TO BE SUSTAINED
175 additional mobile towers are proposed to be constructed in the next phase to increase mobile connectivity in the LWE-affected areas.
The road transport and highways ministry had constructed 3,904 km of roads until January 31, 2016, in the 34 worst LWE-affected districts in eight states. A total of 5,422 km of roads remain to be constructed. The government accelerated a counter-insurgency strategy of flooding Maoist areas, particularly in Chhattisgarh, with paramilitary forces. “Between 2010 and 2014, we have seen a surge in the number of paramilitary battalions from 30 to 100,” says a senior home ministry official. Each battalion has 800 troopers.
The Chhattisgarh government has completed building 70 out of a planned 75 fortified police stations in the Maoist-affected southern districts under a Rs 150 crore plan. These have permanent buildings which can station over 100 policemen. The police go out on multi-directional patrols.
“We are slowly cutting their roots,” says Brigadier Basant Kumar Ponwar (retired), who runs the Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College in Kanker, Chhattisgarh. “One day,” he predicts, “this huge Maoist tree will just wither and fall.”
Jituram Savlam, 27, is a prized catch for the Chhattisgarh police. Last year, he and wife Pojje, both hardcore Maoist foot soldiers, turned their backs on the revolution. They slipped out of their Maoist camp in Dantewada, changed into civilian clothes, leaving their black uniforms and rifles, trekked through the jungles and gave themselves up. Now recruited into the police ranks, the disillusioned guerrilla is a valuable intelligence source for the police against his former comrades. Savlam is one of the hundreds who surrendered to the police last year.
In 2016, the Maoists lost 134 fighters in encounters with the security forces and saw 250 weapons being recovered from them. “We have been applying relentless pressure on them,” says Durgesh Madhav Awasthy, special director general (Naxal Operations and Special Intelligence Bureau), Chhattisgarh. “We have gone in for intelligence-based operations. Over the past 18 months, we have attacked two or three Maoist camps every week. They haven’t attacked a single camp of ours.”
In the past seven years, 848 Maoists in the steeply hierarchical CPI (Maoist) have been killed, captured, or have surrendered. Those captured include two members of the CPI (Maoist) central committee—K. Muralidharan from Pune in 2015 and Anukul Chandra Naskar from Cachar in Assam in 2013. Home ministry figures show 1,442 leftwing extremists surrendered last year, more than three times the number in 2015; 397 Maoists surrendered in the first three months of this year. The Maoist leadership remains the primary cause for concern. Most members of the CPI (Maoist) central committee and politburo are believed to be hiding in major urban centres and towns bordering Chhattisgarh.
Police assessments say the Maoists will cease to be a threat within five years. But for that, the civil administration and security forces will have to keep up the twopronged pressure of development and security in LWE areas. In time, the decline in Maoist activity could be built up into permanent defeat of this movement.
In recent years, the Maoists have suffered tremendous losses, including in the top leadership, leaving the movement in dire straits. “It is, however, premature to declare victory and let our guard down,” says Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, Delhi. “The Maoists retain sufficient operational capacities to do significant harm, and have demonstrated these again and again over the past months and years. If the present incident is thought of as ‘dying embers flickering brightly’, we should prepare for much more such ‘flickering’.” The incidents in Sukma are a case in point.
SAVAGE ATTACK Home minister Rajnath Singh and Chhattisgarh CM Raman Singh pay tribute to the CRPF troopers killed by Maoists in Chhattisgarh on April 24
TURF WAR Security personnel guard a road construction team in Dantewada in 2016